Sample Choice Hack
You have experienced flow before. It’s easy to identify flow in others while it happens, but detecting flow in the self while it happens is impossible—when you become aware enough of yourself to evaluate your attention and focus, you slip out of the flow mindset and flow inevitably ends. Maybe you are in flow now—but oops, you thought about it, and now flow has slipped away. People who experience flow are immersed, completely engaged in what they are doing, oblivious to their surroundings, and unaware of time. Concentration lapses caused by assessing feelings, gauging task progress, or evaluating your motivational state do not exist during flow. The flow state might seem mystical, but it’s not rare. Most of us experience flow almost every day.
You may be thinking that flow is artificially induced, achieved by swallowing a miracle pill or practicing some ancient ritual of spiritual awakening. But in reality, flow happens during many routine activities and tasks. Flow is most frequently reported during driving. Other instances of flow occur during work—perhaps when you are fully absorbed in a project or when you try to amuse yourself by completing a boring task in a record amount of time. Many athletes report experiencing flow. They describe their behavior as being “in the zone,” and it happens during intense competition, when the athlete’s mind focuses on nothing but the competition in the moment and the overwhelming desire to win. Surprisingly, people report fewer instances of flow during leisure activities. This is because play often lacks significant challenge, an important requirement for the flow experience.
Why it works:Highly motivated performers—people who are often completely engrossed in their work—detest having their concentration interrupted. These interruptions can be internal ones: anxiety due to lack of task confidence, emotional distractions (anger, sadness, or excitement), or motivational lapses (moments of self-doubt when it seems that the task is more challenging than we can handle). Cognitive interference can also come from outside the self: uncomfortable temperatures, children screaming, dogs barking, or lawn mowers rumbling can all serve to pull you out of flow. The first step toward flow is controlling these intrusions, either by physically removing the intrusion or by ignoring it. But a quiet mind and environment don’t guarantee flow. For a performer to experience flow, the task must also meet certain conditions: it should be at least marginally interesting, it should be reasonably challenging, and it should provide some form of performance feedback. When personal, environmental, and task factors line up properly and the performer wants to engage in and complete the task at hand, the stage is set for flow.
As outlined in the Mindful Hack, we perform best when we see value in the task and in reaching our task goals. We reach the temporary bliss of flow only when the right conditions are in place and only for as long as concentration remains uninterrupted. If the task gets harder—hard enough that we can’t progress—flow stops until we have adjusted to the more strenuous conditions. People often experience flow while playing video games because the player explicitly chooses the degree of difficulty; if the challenge level is too high or too low, flow is compromised. When all psychological and biological systems are synchronized, the flow state happens automatically and produces superior performance that continues until conditions change.
Application:You may be wondering how to achieve flow to maximize your performance. First, pick a familiar task (this is why flow is a Choice Hack), then kick it up a notch. In other words, take your performance to the next level: read a book that requires your focused concentration to understand, have a deeply engaging conversation with someone you adore or admire, or take a jog down the street with a family pet or human of your choice. Next, repeatedly practice the task until you achieve a state of satisfaction and mastery—what psychologists refer to as “automaticity,” which occurs when you can complete the task with little effort or conscious thought. Automaticity is the reason many people report flow during driving. Experienced drivers drive without thinking about the actual mechanics.
You can also deliberate structure tasks to induce flow. Try making a boring or repetitive task more interesting by testing your performance limits. See if you can mow the lawn faster than you did last time. If speed is not your need, challenge yourself to mow your lawn into a Donald Trump comb-over (maybe you’ll bond with your conservative neighbors). If all else fails, sink yourself into your favorite book, movie, or leisure activity, but only if it is stimulating enough to warrant your undivided attention. Or you can deeply engage with a romantic partner, or engross yourself in an intellectual debate with a formidable opponent. Achieving flow is a highly personal experience, but when everything is in place and you reach flow, it almost guarantees optimal performance.